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Subway Tile Installation: Three Basic Tips

subway tile layout lines
I usually draw two vertical layout lines for subway tile installations

Subway Tile Installation: Three Basic Tips

Subway tile- what’s not to like? It’s classic and timeless. A fairly easy tile to work with and install. And the white subway tile is usually pretty inexpensive. In this post I will talk about three things that can help to get you started with your subway tile installation. These things will work for any application, whether it’s a shower, bathtub, or kitchen backsplash.

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Ceramic Subway Tile: 3 Pro Installation Secrets

subway tile installation
Daltile subway tile installed on a tub platform

Layout Lines

When it comes to laying out subway tile, I always draw two vertical lines – one for each offset row. If I were to tile the back wall of a shower or bathtub surround with subway tile I would generally start with a vertical center line. Then off of the center line I would draw the offset line. So for a typical 3×6 subway tile these two lines will be 3 inches apart.

However, for 3×6 subway tile I usually draw the lines either 9 or 15 inches apart. Why? So I can get a trowel in between the lines. This allows me to trowel thinset on the wall without covering up the lines with the mortar. You can draw your lines 3 inches apart but you’ll have to back butter thinset on half the tile before you install it.

subway tile bullnose trim
Three bullnose options for Daltile Rittenhouse tile. They make both left and right out corners and they are labeled backwards in my opinion.

Bullnose Trim for Subway Tiles

Many people buy their white 3×6 subway tile at big box stores where the trim options can be limited. For instance, the 3×6 subway tile that Home Depot sells is from Daltile. But for a trim tile they only sell a 2×6 bullnose tile and a 2×2 out corner. However, Daltile makes some other options (page 4 in this link) in the same 3×6 white tile (color 0100). They make a 3×6 tile where the three inch end is bullnosed. They also make a 3×6 tile where the six inch side is bullnosed. This allows you to keep the pattern going out to the edge of the wall rather than break the pattern with a 2×6 bullnose tile.

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I don’t think Dal sells to the general public so you’ll probably have to order from a specialty tile store or maybe special order from Home Depot. But the 3×6 white subway tile is very popular and comes with many different trim options.

subway tile wrapped corner
Ideally you want the pattern to look like it “continues” around the corner

Carrying the Pattern Through a Corner

Generally speaking, when you come to the end of a wall and you want the subway tile installation to look like it “wraps” onto the next wall. A 3 sided shower for example: You would typically center the back wall so the cuts are even on both sides. Then you want the inside corner to look like the tile “continues” onto both side walls. One way of doing this is to take the actual pieces that you cut off and put those on the next wall. Then the cuts would be exactly like the subway tile pattern continues.

subway tile bullnose
There’s more options than the 2×6 bullnose shown in this photo

Most of the time you’ll want whole/half bullnose tiles on the exposed end of the wall. So you can layout the rows so that the big tile from the end wall meets up with the small tile on the back wall. And vice versa. Lay it out ahead of time and choose whichever way looks the best. Sometimes it’s right in the middle so that neither option looks good. We’ll cover that problem in the next post.

 

This post is just to offer some basic subway tile installation tips. The next post will cover some pro tips for subway tiles. Let me know what questions that you have in the comments below.

Ceramic Subway Tile: 3 Pro Installation Secrets

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24 comments

  1. I want to install beveled subway tile backsplash in my kitchen. What do I do about gap around outlet cover due to bevel?
    I don’t want a gap to show when viewing from the side.

  2. I’m doing a subway tile in my 3 wall shower, but there is a bench. I’m trying to figure out how to make it look like the tile wraps around the corners without messing up the lines on the wall where the bench is. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

    • Typically, I will make the main wall corners wrap and then try and make the bench look as good as possible.

      Sometimes sacrifices have to be made. But sometimes you can change the bench to work for the layout. Just do the best that you can.

  3. i’m doing a kitchen back splash which has a window with a rounded corners. the person i’m doing it for is using white 3×6 white beveled tile. what options do i have going around the corners?

    • I think your best option would be to 3-piece it. Put in a small 3/4-7/8 inch cut on the corner with 22.5 degree miters.

      I just posted a photo on my Twitter account to show what this looks like. The tile isn’t beveled but it’s the same concept for beveled tiles.

  4. When you get to the inside corners of a three wall bath surround , how much gap do you leave between the wall and the last tile on either side of the corner using 1/8th spacers? Thanks!! Ray

  5. Whatever happened to subway tiles that had a notch to butt them together? I like that fine line of grout. Home Depot and Lowe’s sell tiles without that notch… I fear if I butt them together the grout will not get in any nook and cranny not covered by the thin set. Are these ok to use or I am going to have to do 1/8 spacers?

  6. I am DIYing my tile backsplash. The tile is 2×6″ Sonoma Stellar tile. Grout lines will be 1/8″. The tile will need to go around an inner corner since its an L-shaped kitchen. I’ve laid it out using your 1/4, 3/4 pattern starting at the inner corner. This worked well because there are no tiny slivers around windows or at the end of the run.

    I have a question though about how to arrange the tiles in the inner corner where the 2 walls meet. Does one tile butt up against the wall and then the “wrapping” tile goes up against that tile with a 1/8″ spacer in between? Or do you leave a small space in the corner that you fill with caulk and then just have the 2 tiles meet just slightly away from the corner? Or do you miter the tiles so that they fit together (or with a 1/8″ grout line?). I dont know what is the right thing to do here.

    Thanks!

    • Hey while you’re at it, do you know what I should be using to mark this tile when I need to cut it? It stains from regular pencil!

      • Sounds like a tough one. A really sharp pencil with small marks might still work. They also make wax crayons that might do the job. I’ve never cared for these as the tips always seem too fat and they need to be sharpened too often.

        Also, you could put a piece of blue or green painters tape on the tile and mark on that. The tile will have to be dry and sometimes the tape will want to come off with a wet saw but otherwise it works.

    • The proper way is to run one wall past with 1/8″ gap between the tile and the wall. Then run the other wall into it and leave 1/8″ gap between the tiles.

      Sometimes the shape of the tiles will dictate that you do it differently. For instance, with beveled subway tile you can’t butt one tile into another because of the shape of the bevel (unless you want to cope (cut) around the bevel). In this case, mitering the tiles is the better way to go. You still want a gap, though.

  7. Hi, looking to install a 3″ by 12″ ceramic tile as my kitchen backsplash. Any recommended trowel size of this large subway tile?

  8. Do you know if American Olean subway tile from Lowe’s has the same option of special ordering? They only have 2×6 bullnose in store. I wanted to not use bullnose at all for my wainscoting in the bathroom to keep it uniform but my contractor thinks that it will look unfinished. I think the tile edge isn’t bad at all and would probably look fine but I’m torn on what to do. I cannot find a match to their ‘glossy white’ color anywhere. And I’m not digging the Schluter trim either which everyone suggests. Have you ever used just the 3×6 with no trim?

    • I wouldn’t use it with no trim but your question about the American Olean tile is something that I’ve been curious about myself being as AO and Daltile (Home Depot’s brand) are owned by the same parent company- Marazzi.

      You might try to visit a tile showroom somewhere and see if they can find out more. Also, if you have an AO distributor in your area you might call and ask them. They won’t sell to the public but they will know about their own lines of tile.

  9. I have a bunch of Daltile Restore 3×6 that I’m using. Do you know of a matching 3″ bullnose tile I could use? Home Depot only has the 2×6″ bullnose as you noted. I see the 3″ bullnose in some of their other lines but not sure if it will match the “restore” line.

    • I haven’t heard of the Restore line but after a quick Googling it appears that it’s something that is exclusive to Home Depot. My guess is that Dal is rebranding their same subway tile for HD.

      Your best option would probably be to bring your tile down to a Daltile showroom and see if they can match the color. Rittenhouse is what Daltile calls their 3×6 line. It used to be color #100 that matched the Home Depot gloss white.

  10. My tiler is butting 3×6 bullnose against each other as outer corner pieces where two walls come together. The resulting grout line going up the wall is not straight. Is it me, or isn’t there a corner tiles that can accomplish this and look CORRECT? Is it time to get a new tiler?

    • So is the tile person putting two bullnose pieces on the corner? Normally, one piece will round into a field tile (normal non-trim) piece.

      If both pieces come together then that doesn’t sound right to me and seems like a waste of material.

      If he’s mitering the pieces then that’s different. But either way, the line should be reasonable straight.

  11. I would like the best advice for the current situation. Currently have a new mortar bed installed. Here is how its set up-
    Sub floor, pitched plywood over sub floor, custom fiberglass over pitched plywood, regard over fiberglass, mortar bed on top of regard.

    I was planning on regarding the wall, here is the question – Would you also regard the motor bed for extra protection ?

    • No, I wouldn’t. Your shower is either waterproof or not. Adding an additional layer of waterproofing over the top can have unintended consequences. I would flood test your shower by plugging the drain and filling it up with water and letting it sit for one-day minimum. Then check the water level.

      If the flood test checks out then you can feel ok about moving forward.

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